Who Goes First?

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The playing venue at the 2015 North American Scrabble Championship

RENO, NEVADA

Which player goes first in a game of Scrabble?  As with so many things in life, I shouldn’t think it would matter, as long as someone goes first.  While I can’t imagine an “after you, my dear Alphonse” type impasse, as far as I’m concerned, if you want to go first, just go already!  Are we going to sit here all day?  I’m not about to have a philosophical discussion of who should play first.

In formal Scrabble clubs, such as the one to which I belonged when I resided in Fresno, who goes first is generally determined by drawing tiles.  Each player sticks his or her hand into the tile bag and draws out one tile.  Whoever has the tile closest to A goes first (with the blank tile trumping all).

In nearly every tournament that I’ve attended, the prevailing rule has been different than at club.  The usual “draw one tile” procedure is used for the first game, after which players are supposed to take turns going first to keep things even.  So when your opponent sits down across from you, the first question is always “how many firsts do you have?”  One is not expected to remember how many times one has gone first.  The tally sheets have indicators for “1st” and “2nd” next to each game, and you are expected to circle the appropriate indicator.  So when the inevitable question arises, each player starts counting down the little circles on his or her tally sheet.

“Well, I’ve had five firsts,” my opponent announces.

“I’ve had six, so you’re first,” I’ll say.

To my surprise, I learned that none of this applies at the North American Scrabble Championship.  That is because “who goes first,” along with every other little detail, is already decided for you ahead of time by the tournament organizers.  Some may not care for such regimentation, but I absolutely love it.  This is by far the best organized event I have attended in my seven years on the tournament scene.  I am seriously impressed.

Before the start of each game, the players check the postings on the bulletin board for their divisions.  Listed is the name and number of the player whom you are playing next, the number of the table you are to sit at and which player will go first.  It’s amazing.  You need to have attended some of the woefully disorganized little tournaments I have attended to appreciate how incredible it is that this giant tournament is organized down to the last detail.  I credit the hard work of the extensive staff.

At a lesser tournament, even the matter of where to play can be contested.  For example:

“We’re next.  Come on over here.”

(whining) “Well, I haven’t played on my own board all tournament.  Can we play at my table?”

Whatever.

At the North American Scrabble Championship, there is none of this.  I have encountered no whining, no arguments, no pettiness or cattiness.

There aren’t even any worries about equipment.  Each division’s leader and assistant, dressed in referee stripes for easy identification, walks around during the game to ensure that each table has plenty of challenge slips.  Your pen ran out of ink?  You need a tissue?  Just call over one of the Stripers and ask.  Oh, and if you start coughing, which may disturb the concentration of the players, the division leader or assistant will visit you with a cough drop in hand.

A bit Orwellian?  Perhaps.  But I wouldn’t have it any other way.  If only every tournament could be like this.  Now I understand why people travel the country to attend this one year after year.  One of my opponents told me that this is his ninth consecutive year of attendance.  I had to bite my tongue to hold myself back from asking if he’s rich.  Reno is only a two and a half hour drive from my home in Sacramento, but how on earth can anyone expect me to lay out the kind of money necessary to attend next year’s tournament in Fort Wayne, Indiana?  Not unless I win the lottery between now and then.

So, you may ask, how did I do on the first day of the tournament?  Not nearly as well as I should have.  I finished the day with four wins and three losses.

My first game was with a snot-nosed kid who could not have been more than 12 or 13 years old.  I cast no aspersions upon his personality by so characterizing him.  In fact, he was a very polite young man who shook my hand both before and after the game.  I am merely remarking on the fact that he kept blowing and wiping his nose throughout the game, repeatedly dropping and retrieving a tissue.  The game was a squeaker; I ended up winning by four points.  I was surprised when the young man did not request a recount.  Perhaps he had never done one before.

After winning each of my first three games by a whisker, I then proceeded to lose my next three games by more than one hundred points each.  There goes my spread, down the drain.  I managed to win my last game of the day, although only by seven points.  My opponent then requested a recount.  It turned out that I had cheated myself out of a point and he had given himself four points too many.  So I ended up winning by 12.

I began the tournament as the sixth seed out of 48.  After Round 1, I was in 21st place.  After Round 2, I was in twelfth place.  After Round 3, I was in sixth place, back up to seed.  Then I lost the three games and dropped down to 30th place.

As we have a March Madness style bracket contest going on, I think I owe an apology to the thirty or so players who saw I was seeded sixth and selected me for their brackets.  Sorry!

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